In her initial written response to the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee on the Department of Education’s role in the GEAR UP/Mid-Central scandal, Education Secretary Melody Schopp referred to a “heated” meeting between her office and Mid-Central principals in April 2012. Secretary Schopp’s follow-up submission to GOAC gives us a few more details about that strange meeting that show Mid-Central officials bucking hard against even the hint that the state might engage in oversight that would could have impinged on the scam that business manager Scott Westerhuis was orchestrating with all that federal grant money.
We don’t learn what heated personal recriminations were exchanged at that April 10, 2012, meeting in Pierre; Schopp’s state attorney Paul Bachand simply writes that it was “a contentious meeting with unfair allegations being leveled at Mr. Campbell by Mr. Phelps and Mr. Westerhuis.” Bachand says Roger Campbell, the DOE’s director of Indian education, “was vigorous in response to these allegations” and refuted Mid-Central’s claims. “Frankly,” writes Bachand to GOAC, “Mr. Campbell exercised considerable restraint in dealing with Mid Central.”
Considerable restraint in dealing with Mid-Central—yeah, that was kind of DOE’s problem all along with stopping the mishandling of federal grants, wasn’t it?
Schopp and Bachand submit to GOAC documents that Mid-Central prepared in anticipation of the April 10, 2012, meeting. One document is an agenda and a list of desired outcomes for the meeting:
Now just the fact that local educational cooperative Mid-Central thinks it gets to set the agenda for a meeting with the state Department of Education shows a misunderstanding of who’s in charge. The fuzzy admin-speak of the desired outcomes also suggests a certain arrogance from below: how does the subordinate local entity get to “define relationship” and “expectations… in regard to project leadership” for the state agency that makes the locals’ access to the big federal grants possible?
Mid-Central accompanied this agenda with a list of thirteen concerns about the GEAR UP and College Access grants. The copy submitted by Schopp to GOAC includes handwritten notes that attorney Bachand says he believes came from Campbell:
Again, Schopp doesn’t tell us what she or Campbell said to Mid-Central about these concerns at their April 10, 2012, meeting, but on April 23, 2012, Campbell did prepare for Schopp a written summary of his responses to these thirteen points:
Note that Mid-Central’s first concern is GEAR UP project director Campbell was referring to them as a “contractor” instead of a partner. Evidently Westerhuis and his gang didn’t like any implication that they had to answer to someone higher up. Campbell sets them straight with this amusingly gentle Animal Farmian response: “We’re all partners but SD DOE is the lead partner.” In other words, DOE is the boss.
In points #3 and #4, Mid-Central makes the startling claim that it poured $950,000 of its own money into GEAR UP and College Access while waiting months for the Department of Education to get off its duff and sign the grant contracts. First of all, Campbell responds that Mid-Central was plenty slow in getting paperwork back to Pierre. But more importantly, Mid-Central appears to be demonstrating that the federal grant dollars were Mid-Central’s to spend before they even had those dollars or the authorization to spend them and that it could somehow bind Pierre’s hands by acting unilaterally.
Call me authoritarian, but from a management perspective, if I see contractors behaving with such arrogance, I drop them from the project and get new contractors on whom I can rely to follow my directives and keep my office out of hot water.
Adding to the red flags that should have warranted dropping Mid-Central in 2012 is Campbell’s statement in his point #5 that Mid-Central, Stacy Phelps’s AIII, and consultant/grant-writer/evaluator Brinda Kuhn prepared a response to the “Program Officer” that contained “inaccuracies about the actual progress of the project.” That’s not just Mid-Central fudging the finances; that’s Mid-Central and friends providing unreliable information about the actual outcomes of GEAR UP.
These documents from Schopp show that in April 2012, the Department of Education knew that Mid-Central and the people it had engaged to run GEAR UP were expressing an arrogant misunderstanding of the proper state oversight of the program, spending money without full authorization, and submitting bad information about how it was using that money. These red flag are all grounds for dismissing a contractor and putting the project in more honest, reliable hands. Yet the Department of Education kept Mid-Central and friends on the job for more than three more years.
Schopp’s attorney Bachand claims this follow-up submission shows that “the Department took appropriate actions to increase its monitoring and oversight.” The April 2012 documents actually show that Secretary Schopp and the Department failed to take the most appropriate action warranted by the evidence available at that time: drop Mid-Central and AIII before their arrogance leads to even bigger problems for the state.